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Monday Morning Hangover: 10 Overshadowed Players Who Hold Keys to Playoffs

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 14, 2015

GREEN BAY, WI - DECEMBER 13:   Eddie Lacy #27 of the Green Bay Packers celebrates his touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys in the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field on December 13, 2015 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Every NFL season hinges on the quarterbacks. So we know this year's playoff chase will come down to Cam Newton, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, Andy Da...er...AJ McCarron and others. 

We also know all about Adrian Peterson, Rob Gronkowski, Luke Kuechly, Larry Fitzgerald, J.J. Watt and other atop-the-marquee superstars. The playoffs always hinge on the health and success of players like these.

The quarterbacks and perennial All-Pros were left off this alphabetical list of players who will change the course of the postseason. These Week 14 newsmakers are fulcrum guys for their teams—the ones who can bring out the best in their quarterbacks, give a late-season foe or playoff opponent more than it can handle, change a team's personality for the better or keep a struggling team from falling completely off the pace.

Doug Baldwin

For a receiver who started for a Super Bowl champion, led an NFC champion in receptions and yards and is currently tied for third in the NFL with 11 receiving touchdowns, Baldwin doesn't get a lot of respect.

There are many reasons why: His raw numbers have never been that great, the Seahawks offense was built around rushing and options until a few weeks ago. Baldwin doesn't fit the size-speed mold of a go-to receiver. Baldwin has never been the biggest (5'10", 189 lbs), fastest or even the most productive receiver in the league, but for years he has been one of the NFL's best system fits.

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BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 13: Wide receiver Doug Baldwin #89 of the Seattle Seahawks celebrates with teammate tight end Cooper Helfet #84 after scoring a fourth quarter touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on December 13, 2015 in Balt
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

With Thomas Rawls out for the season with a broken ankle, the Seahawks face a running back crisis. They need Baldwin to be better than ever, and he was with a six-catch, 82-yard, three-touchdown effort Sunday.

But it's one thing to score touchdowns in a 35-6 defeat of the Ravens' Triple-A affiliate and another to come through when the Seahawks need him in a critical regular-season game (like the season finale in Arizona) or a road playoff game.

Baldwin looks like he is up to the challenge. Since the start of November, he has 33 catches for 550 yards and nine touchdowns in six games (counting Sunday). Baldwin's 7-92-1 stat line against the Packers and 7-134-1 performance against the Cardinals show he comes up big in important games.

The Seahawks lost those Packers and Cardinals games, despite the fact Marshawn Lynch and Jimmy Graham, as well as Rawls, were healthy. The Seahawks offense now relies almost completely on Wilson's passing. Wilson relies heavily on Baldwin as both a big-play threat and a chain-mover.

Baldwin has a chance to earn the national respect that has eluded him for years. He just has to produce bigger numbers than the Seahawks have ever asked him to.

Calais Campbell

Campbell reached the Pro Bowl last year, but he remains one of the NFL's most underrated defenders because: a) he has only 2.5 sacks this season and has never cracked double digits in his career; b) he plays in a small-media market in a weird time zone in a desert; and c) the Cardinals seem to have 90 role players who make positive contributions, so Campbell gets lost in the shuffle.

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

Campbell has 16 quarterback hits and 13 tackles for loss this season (stats courtesy NFLGSIS.com unless noted). He recorded one sack, four quarterback hits and three tackles for a loss in Thursday night's win over the Vikings, recovering the game-clinching fumble after Dwight Freeney's sack. Pro Football Focus ranks him seventh-best in the league among 3-4 defensive ends and fourth at his position as a run defender.

In addition to being an effective pass-rusher and run defender, Campbell does all the little things, including hustling out to the edge to disrupt receiver screens and sacrificing himself to offensive linemen to open up lanes for the blitzers behind him.

Campbell's versatility will be critical against the rollout- and screen-happy Eagles, suddenly run-oriented Packers, suddenly pass-oriented Seahawks and of course the Cam Newton option threat if the Cardinals cross playoff paths with the Panthers.

Tyler Eifert

Now that Andy Dalton is out indefinitely with a fracture in his thumb, the Bengals need Eifert to clear through concussion protocol quickly (but responsibly).

McCarron can probably beat the 49ers next week, with or without Eifert. But with little zip on his fastball and a shaky feel for coverage or the pass rush, McCarron will get destroyed by the Broncos in two weeks if he does not have every possible weapon at his disposal.

Gary Landers/Associated Press

Entering Sunday, Eifert was Dalton's most dependable situational receiver. Eifert produced 10 third-down conversions on 17 third-down pass attempts this season. In the red zone, he has delivered 11 touchdowns on 17 targets.

Before leaving the Steelers game Sunday with a concussion, Eifert turned a tight end screen into a 24-yard conversion on 3rd-and-10. After he left, McCarron drove the Bengals to the 8-yard line but had to settle for a field goal after a sack.

As bleak as things look for the Bengals with Dalton out, upcoming 49ers and Ravens games should allow them to reach 12 wins, while the Broncos' loss to the Raiders keeps the window to a first-round bye (or more) open.

Dalton can still return and flip the Bengals' tired playoff script. It's up to Eifert to get healthy and give McCarron a security blanket—and a chance at beating a good opponent—until Dalton returns.

William Gay

Gay is the Steelers defender you saw pick off that sputtering McCarron screen pass in the third quarter, return it for a 23-yard touchdown and celebrate in the end zone for so long that even Cam Newton thought it was time to let the beat drop.

Gary Landers/Associated Press

Extended dance parties and critical divisional victories aside, Gay had a real reason to celebrate. He has returned his past five interceptions for touchdowns: one on Sunday, three in 2014 and one in 2013.

The Steelers now have 24 takeaways for the year, and they've been crucial for their defense. On a pass-for-pass basis, their coverage is not good:

  • Antwon Blake got burned for an A.J. Green touchdown Sunday—his seventh score allowed this year, according to Pro Football Focus.
  • Gay was not playing well early in the season.
  • Nickel defender Ross Cockrell bore the brunt of Russell Wilson's aerial barrage in the Seahawks loss.

The Steelers ranked 25th in the NFL at stopping deep passes entering Week 14, according to Football Outsiders. They live by the bomb, but against good quarterbacks and defenses, they can die by the bomb.

If the Steelers are going to play fast-break football, they need a defender who provides some steals and layups on the other side of the court. That's where Gay comes in. After a Broncos matchup next week, the Steelers face the Ravens and Browns. The pick-sixes, and a playoff berth, should be ripe for the plucking.

Eddie Lacy

It's been a strange, frustrating season for Lacy. Injuries, missed curfews and (unofficially) weight issues have shuttled him from the starting lineup to the inactive list to Mike McCarthy's doghouse and back again.

While no one can ignore the spare doughnut above Lacy's belt line, the Packers offense is much more functional when he is playing a significant role. Lacy has had three 100-yard games in the last three weeks. Two of those games happened to be the Packers' best offensive performances since the start of their great offensive slump.

GREEN BAY, WI - DECEMBER 13: Eddie Lacy #27 of the Green Bay Packers runs the ball against the Dallas Cowboys during the game at Lambeau Field on December 13, 2015 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Packers defeated the Cowboys 28-7. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Packers are woefully short on offensive weapons. They need both Lacy and James Starks, who's best as a changeup back and as a receiver. Starks averaged just 2.8 yards per rush on first downs entering Sunday's win. Lacy averaged 4.0 yards per carry on first downs entering Sunday. When your passing game is struggling, there is a big difference between 2nd-and-6 and 2nd-and-7 or 8.

The Packers must reinvent themselves as a running and defensive team if they hope to survive the playoffs. Neither Starks nor the current version of Lacy is the ideal running back to win a slugfest with a team like the Seahawks. But the Lacy-Starks combination could be powerful and versatile enough to give the Packers a shot.

Robert Mathis

Remember Robert Mathis? Six-time Pro Bowler, major contributor to the Colts' Super Bowl teams of the 2000s, missed 2014 with an Achilles injury? The Colts should not be relying on him in 2015. They signed Erik Walden and Trent Cole to big contracts as pass-rushers in the last three years, as well as drafting Bjoern Werner in the first round.

No. 98
No. 98Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press/Associated Press

Yet, here we are: Walden has three sacks on the season and did not play Sunday. Cole got his second sack of the season in the 51-16 debacle against the Jaguars. Werner just returned from injury.

Mathis, who leads the Colts with four sacks but has been shut out for a month, recovered a botched shotgun snap in the end zone for a Colts touchdown, but anyone can pounce on a botched Jaguars snap (they are a regular occurrence). Mathis was silent for the rest of the afternoon.

The Colts have a lot of problems, but their lack of pass rush creates a ripple effect that could ruin their season before Andrew Luck can return to try to save it. It's one thing for Ben Roethlisberger to sit in the pocket and bomb you back to medieval times, but when Blake Bortles leads a five-offensive-touchdown assault on you, then anyone can, including the Texans next week.

Somebody has to produce pressure for the Colts defense, and it probably won't be the "Ryan Grigson Regret Trio" of Walden, Cole and Werner. It's up to Mathis, who started the season as a designated old-guy pass-rusher for 3rd-and-long situations, to do a little of what former sack-buddy Dwight Freeney is doing for the Cardinals.

Jabaal Sheard

So Rob Gronkowski is back, but now LeGarrette Blount is hurt. Danny Amendola is his usual self, but other than James White, there are no more undiscovered role-playing superstars lying around the Patriots depth chart. It's up to the Patriots to do what the Patriots do best: reinvent themselves on the fly.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Sheard was a vintage Patriots offseason acquisition. His signing away from the Browns generated little attention. He didn't cost much: $11 million over two seasons—much of it in roster-bonus form in case the Patriots weren't completely satisfied.

They have been satisfied so far: Sheard had four sacks and was a valuable run defender entering Sunday night, when he forced a pair of fumbles to help the Patriots trounce the Diet Patriots (Texans).

The Sunday night game was closer than the 27-6 score. The Patriots had trouble sustaining drives and gave up some big passing plays. This is how it's going to be for them from now on when they face better opponents, even with Gronkowski back.

Luckily for New England, no team is as good at grabbing a guy off a lousy roster and polishing him into a vital cog in the big machine as the Patriots. They are back in the driver's seat for home-field advantage, thanks to their defense.

Sheard carries the banner for all the Patrick Chung, Malcolm Butler, Jamie Collins and Alan Branch types of players who can engineer wins during Brady's manpower shortage.

Jonathan Stewart

Stewart doesn't get a lot of attention. He's simply the most important component in the Panthers running game—a grinder Carolina cannot afford to allow to get ground down.

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 13:  Jonathan Stewart #28 of the Carolina Panthers runs the ball against the Atlanta Falcons in the 1st half during their game at Bank of America Stadium on December 13, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Stewart led all NFL running backs in offensive snaps entering this week, according to Pro Football Focus. His 602 offensive snaps were more than runner-up workhorses T.J. Yeldon and Adrian Peterson. Only Peterson has carried the ball more this year.

The Panthers don't really have a change-of-pace back. When they want to give Stewart a break, fullback Mike Tolbert takes a carry or two, or the Panthers just switch to an empty backfield.

Stewart was a committee back for most of his career, and the numbers show he may not be suited to the workload he has received this season.

Stewart's Rushing Production by Carries and by Quarter
RushYdsAvgQuarterAvg
Carries 1-101306384.91st5.3
Carries 11-20993213.22nd4.3
Carries 21-3013302.33rd3.8
4th2.8
NFL.com

The last thing the Panthers need is a gassed Stewart trying to protect a three-point lead in the fourth quarter against a top opponent.

Stewart carried 10 times for 75 yards and a touchdown in the Panthers' 38-0 blowout of the Falcons and then took most of the second half off as Fozzy Whittaker and Tolbert killed the clock. Stewart needs more games like that so he can rest for the playoffs and the Panthers can give Whittaker and other backs more opportunities.

Muhammad Wilkerson

The Jets offense was impressive in Sunday's 30-8 win over the Titans, but the Jets are not going to score 30 points against playoff-caliber competition this season. Most playoff defenses, for example, won't allow Brandon Marshall to score a long touchdown while all 11 players stare at their own sideline with their hands in the air, waiting for a defensive play call.

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Wilkerson and the defensive line were even more impressive against the Titans. Wilkerson alone recorded three sacks, and the Titans rushed 13 times for 24 yards. The Jets defense has proved it can play that way against playoff-caliber competition; it held the Patriots to just 16 rushing yards, for example, with Wilkerson providing one of three sacks on Brady.

Football Outsiders ranked the Jets first in the NFL in run defense entering this week, and Sunday's 24-yard effort won't make them fall back to the pack. Pro Football Focus ranks Wilkerson fourth among 3-4 defensive ends.

Wilkerson is the guy who can shut down the run-oriented Cowboys and Bills down the stretch while making the Patriots one-dimensional and beatable. When the playoffs arrive and three-touchdown Ryan Fitzpatrick games are harder to come by, Wilkerson gives the Jets the best chance to win a slugfest.

Albert Wilson

The following table lists all the NFL's No. 2 wide receivers who have fewer than 30 receptions this year:

No. 2 WRs with Fewest 2015 Receptions
ReceiverTeamReceptionsYardsTouchdowns
Josh HuffEagles222523
Torrey Smith49ers245463
Albert WilsonChiefs253662
Marquess WilsonBears284641
Kenny BrittRams284801
Jerricho CotcheryPanthers293622
NFLGSIS.com

It's not a good sign that the Chiefs are on the same offensive list as the 49ers and Rams, though they can take heart that the Panthers are on the list too.

It's well-established that the Chiefs lack wide receiving threats to complement Jeremy Maclin. That's why Wilson's 44-yard touchdown and four-catch afternoon against the Chargers was so important.

The Chargers matched Maclin up with Jason Verrett, and their top cornerback contained Maclin for much of the afternoon. Wilson responded by giving the Chiefs the only touchdown they needed in a 10-3 win.

Ed Zurga/Associated Press

There are three 8-5 teams fighting for two wild-card spots in the AFC. The Chiefs have an easier road than the Steelers and Jets, but they also have the least on-paper talent and are coming off the least impressive Week 14 victory.

They need every possible advantage to keep their winning streak alive. That means they need Wilson to provide a few more four-catch games.

Stock Watch: Fringe Watch

This week's Stock Watch focuses on players, teams and storylines from the fringes of the playoff picture, including most of the fringy NFC East.

Kirk Cousins

Cousins (24-of-31, 300 yards, one touchdown, one rushing touchdown and one interception in a 24-21 victory over the Bears) continues to play just well enough to convince people who really want to be convinced that Cousins is a future franchise quarterback that he is a future franchise quarterback. Rising.

Eagles' Three-Headed Backfield Controversy

DeMarco Murray
DeMarco MurrayMitchell Leff/Getty Images

Ryan Mathews rushed 13 times for 38 yards, DeMarco Murray rushed 11 times for 34 yards and Darren Sproles rushed seven times for 41 yards and a touchdown in the Eagles' 23-20 win over the Bills. Each running back caught two passes for a total of 11 yards.

The usage pattern appeared pretty random. Chip Kelly may be progressively weighing opposing linebackers and making running back selections according to the real-time sports science. Preston Brown has sweated down to 249.5 pounds? Bring in Murray until Brown drinks a Gatorade!

As long as the Eagles generate most of their big plays on special teams, the precise carry totals will only matter to Murray and whatever poor soul sits next to him in first class. Steady.

Bills' Offensive Identity

Their current identity appears to be we're the team that completes one bomb to Sammy Watkins and then spends the rest of the game committing holding penalties that negate Tyrod Taylor scrambles. Falling.

Robbie Gould

Gould missed a potential game-tying 50-yarder at the end of the fourth quarter this week after missing a potential game-winning 36-yarder at the end of regulation last week.

Yes, 50-yarders in the rain are tough, but Gould is supposed to be a veteran bad-weather kicker. If Kirk Cousins and Blaine Gabbert sign big contracts in the offseason, each should give 10 percent to Gould for contributing to their "winner" narratives. Falling.

Jaguars' Fourth-Quarter Madness

This week, the Jaguars began going crazy in the third quarter, embarking on a five-touchdown binge (two in the third quarter, three in the fourth) that turned a close game into a 51-16 rewrite of the franchise record book.

Not only could the Jaguars still make the playoffs, but they are only a couple of chaotic fourth-quarter plays away from being 7-6 this season. Who knows how good the Jaguars can be if Stefen Wisniewski ceases to be the Matt Schaub of centers? Rising.

The Rebuilding Saints

Drew Brees (right)
Drew Brees (right)Cliff McBride/Getty Images

It turns out, Drew Brees and Marques Colston are still good enough to defeat younger opponents in 24-17 games that will harm the Saints' draft prospects and make the team's descent into elderly, expensive irrelevance even slower and more excruciating. Falling.

Matt Ryan

We feel a disturbance in the force, as if millions of Get to Know Sean Renfree articles are crying out from hard drives at once. Falling.

Dez Bryant

Bryant had just one catch for nine yards Sunday, giving him six catches for 97 yards in the last three games. That flight back to Dallas had to be fun; teammates were probably climbing over each other for seats as far from Bryant as possible.

Dez Bryant (left)
Dez Bryant (left)Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press/Associated Press

We fully expect lava to flow from our monitors when we check Bryant's Twitter account this week. Now that the Cowboys have completely given up the forward pass as a strategy (Matt Cassel threw for just 114 yards Sunday) and the Redskins and Eagles have a two-game lead in the standings, can we please stop pretending the Cowboys' playoff hopes are a thing? No? They are still mathematically alive?

Heavy sigh. Falling.

Performance Bonuses

Offensive Line Bonus

The Browns offensive line has needed a little love all season. This is a talented unit whose efforts this season have been rendered meaningless by terrible skill-position talent, a few weak-link line performances by injury replacements and some quarterback drama you may have heard about.

But a visit from the often-listless 49ers defense is like a self-esteem seminar. The Browns rushed for 230 yards in a 24-10 victory—nearly double their previous high of the season of 116 yards—while Johnny Manziel was sacked just twice.

So let's hear it for Joe Thomas, new starter Austin Pasztor, Alex Mack, John Greco and Mitchell Schwartz!

Dave Fipp Special Teams Bonus

The special teams bonus has a new sponsor! It's coach Dave Fipp, whose special teams are keeping Chip Kelly employed with long Sproles returns, Caleb Sturgis field goals, long Donnie Jones punts and muffed-punt recoveries.

Culture beats scheme all the time, but a special teams coach who bails out your butt every week also beats being on speaking terms with your running backs!

Fipp gets the naming rights, but Steelers kicker Chris Boswell gets the bonus for four field goals, with three in the 40-50-yard range, against the Bengals.

Remember when the Steelers were going to fall apart because Josh Scobee could barely make an extra point? Remember when we thought Ben Roethlisberger was out for the year (at least twice)? It has been a strange year in Pittsburgh.

Unsung Defensive Hero Bonus

Khalil Freakin' Mack recorded five sacks. Mack, the fifth player taken in the 2014 draft, recorded four sacks as a rookie. He was a tape junkie's darling for his run defense and ability to flush quarterbacks from the pocket, but the Raiders defense was horrible, so quarterbacks often sidestepped Mack and did whatever the heck they wanted.

Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

Mack now has nine sacks in his last three games to give him 14 on the season. But he has still been seeking a signature game to turn him from cool indie defender into breakout superstar.

After stripping Brock Osweiler in the end zone to set up a safety, adding three sacks in the tight fourth quarter of a 15-12 Raiders win and almost single-handedly throwing a monkey wrench into the Broncos' bid for home-field advantage in the playoffs, Mack has officially arrived.

Welcome to the inner circle, Khalil. The "overrated" backlash is scheduled for Week 6 of 2016.

Meaningless Fantasy Touchdown Bonus

There were lots of meaningless fantasy touchdowns this week, including everything the Jaguars did in the fourth quarter against the Colts.

But Russell Wilson gets the nod for throwing a 16-yarder to a wide-open Doug Baldwin in the fourth quarter because a) it impacted more fantasy leagues than anything Blake Bortles did and b) the sight of Lardarius Webb falling on his face after Baldwin makes a fairly routine move on a post route is comedy gold.

Fantasy Leech Bonus

Robert Turbin
Robert TurbinJeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

Darren McFadden was the only player on the Cowboys offense to have a decent game, with nine carries for 111 yards.

McFadden ripped off a 45-yard run straight up the gut early in the third quarter, when the Cowboys were still in the game against the Packers. Unfortunately for McFadden's fantasy owners, Robert Turbin promptly entered the game for two quick carries and a leech touchdown.

Despite the touchdown, Turbin spent the flight home from Green Bay staring at a scrapbook of photos of the Space Needle and Pike Place market, with his finger hovering above Pete Carroll's phone number on his contact list and his eyes watering up.

Smart Coaching Decision Bonus

No bonus this week. We just wanted to call out Jack Del Rio for attempting a two-point conversion with a three-point lead in the fourth quarter. Think about it...

Then again, Del Rio didn't send an injured 40-year old quarterback back onto the field in a 37-16 game so he could get even more injured scrambling for a first down. Time to restart the Chuck Pagano firing rumor mill.

Mystery Touch Bonus

Running back Antonio Andrews' 41-yard touchdown pass to Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota was a delight to watch and a play the NFL's Wildcat fans have waited seven years for.

Quarterbacks have been jogging out to the far corner of the formation on Wildcat plays and gazing at their cleats after the snap since Chad Pennington first gave way to Ronnie Brown for the 2008 Dolphins.

When Mariota took a few bored-looking steps up the field and then broke into a full sprint, safety Calvin Pryor practically tied his ankles into a pretzel trying to react. Even Jets fans could chuckle; after all, the touchdown and a two-point conversion only cut the Jets lead to 27-8.

Great throw, Andrews. Now, about your four carries for eight rushing yards...

Last Call

Let's wrap up by looking at how the race for the first overall pick in the 2016 draft is shaping up. This is how the draft order currently stands:

Tennessee Titans (3-10): The Titans scored 42, 34 and 42 points in their three victories but average 13.5 points per game in their defeats. They either need to improve considerably or find a way to schedule nine games per year against the Saints and Jaguars.

San Diego Chargers (3-10): The Chargers are about one offensive line injury away from scoring negative points in a future game.

Cleveland Browns (3-10): Johnny Manziel played well. He also signed a $100 bill for a fan before the game and banged his head against his sideline tablet repeatedly after an interception.

The ultimate Browns nightmare scenario would be for Manziel to win enough games to keep the team from selecting their rookie quarterback of choice while still demonstrating worrisome immaturity every time he has something in his hands other than a football. Looks like we are heading for an ultimate Browns nightmare scenario.

Kyle Horner @kylehorner_

#MoneyMaziel signed a 100 bill for me #Browns #GoBrowns @jmanziel2 💯 @SportsCenter @SportsNation @BleacherReport https://t.co/ig8wP0NZ9V

San Francisco 49ers (4-9): Keep telling yourself that Colin Kaepernick would have been sacked 10 times and produced nine points.

Detroit Lions (4-9): Calvin Johnson caught one pass for 16 yards on five targets. Cancel all those Jim Bob Cooter head coaching interviews.

Dallas Cowboys (4-9): No quarterback, no passing offense, no run defense, no intensity, no leadership, still a semi-reasonable mathematical chance of reaching the playoffs. The NFC East is a terrible, terrible place.

Baltimore Ravens (4-9): Too stubborn to surrender, too much like a last-place baseball team full of September call-ups to score touchdowns.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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